Cuba has been in the news almost constantly this year, as foreign observers have scrutinized the recent round of reforms, reported on the activities of island dissidents, and speculated on the plans of the new president, Raúl Castro. But what ordinary Cubans think has often been lost in the media shuffle. In particular, with all the talk about a “transition” in Cuba, the island’s youths—ostensibly the protagonists of their country’s future—have escaped serious analysis. This was the case in February, when a four-minute video of a confrontation between university students and the president of the Cuban parliament, Ricardo Alarcón, took the international media by storm. Speaking without the usual deference shown to the revolutionary leadership, the students challenged Alarcón with a series of grievances: Why do Cubans need state permission to travel? What justifies the system of dual currencies? Why can’t government processes be more transparent?
The video was surprising not for what the students said—such complaints are common in Cuba—but for how audaciously they said it. The video’s most vocal student, Eliécer Ávila, was briefly celebrated as a poster child for youth rebellion in the Miami media. When he reappeared on Cuban state television several days later, assuring his support for the revolution, the exile media’s initial jubilation gave way to allegations that Eliécer had been coerced into recanting.
The incident revived long-standing questions over the relationship of young Cubans with the revolution. Observers both within Cuba and abroad have consistently noted the youngest generation’s lack of “integration,” as revolutionary argot puts it. From Spain’s recent literary award for Cuba’s 32-year-old independent blogger Yoani Sánchez to “the Eliécer case,” as it was quickly dubbed, international observers have romanticized what seems to be an emerging youth rebellion. Cuba’s leadership, meanwhile, has long expressed concern over the seeming political apathy and materialism of the island’s youth and has designed a series of social programs aimed at incorporating them. Recent government programs include the extension of higher—education initiatives through city municipios; the development of new fields like social work to pull young people into employment; and the creation of a brigade of “social workers” (the label is something of a misnomer), in which economically disadvantaged youths are used as a mobile labor force to serve as stopgaps in problem areas—at gas stations, -inter-provincial buses lines, and even primary schools.
I spent part of the summer in Havana talking to Cuban youth about their political views and hopes for the future. (All of them asked that I withhold their names.) Many of them were clearly not invested in the revolutionary project in the same way as their parents and grandparents. Most were disaffected with the revolution’s historic leadership and anxious for better employment and consumption. Nevertheless, few favored either unregulated capitalism or U.S.-style electoral politics.
While many proclaimed a kind of anti-politics—regularly asserting that they are disinterested in politics or even that politics “makes me sick”—such statements need to be examined with care. For one thing, they reflect the sense of political impotence that is a central component of younger Cubans’ consciousness. They feel that the political decisions that affect their lives are made off in the distance by their government and that of the United States, without their own opinions being taken into consideration. Furthermore, when young people dismiss “politics,” they are often referring to what they perceive as dogmatism, which they sometimes liken to religious fanaticism (Communist hardliners are sometimes mockingly referred to in Cuba as “the Taliban”). They are exasperated with the revolutionary government’s constant political “orientations”—that is, the state’s specific exhortations, e.g., to support the Cinco Heroes (the Cuban Five), and the more general pressure to attend official festivities and rallies or join whatever mobilization is currently under way. In fact, almost every person I spoke to in June made this point, nearly verbatim, about the exhausting imposition of dogmatic politics in daily life.
Similarly, many young people expressed frustration with the Manichean worldview of the revolutionary leadership. Over and over, the young people expressed a desire for more tolerance in Cuban politics, for a more inclusive political spectrum, and for a less confrontational attitude toward dissenting views. This contrasts with the popular image of today’s Cuban youth as motivated primarily by materialist or consumerist demands—an image that animates the sometimes vicious state discourse toward jineteras (young women who work hustling tourists) and less “integrated” youth in general. And many young people I spoke to did launch a litany of “consumerist” demands—including higher wages, an end to the dual-currency system, better housing, more food, access to consumer goods, permission to travel abroad, and access to the Internet (not only the state-sanctioned Intranet).
But such demands, in the context of socialist Cuba, have a very different meaning than they do in the developed world. Access to housing, food, travel, and the Internet delineate privilege in contemporary Cuba, which has arguably become, since the 1990s, a de facto class society. One could thus read these demands as calls for accountability from a revolutionary leadership that has continued praising social equality, even as inequality has returned to Cuba. Taken together,- they also offer a deep criticism of Cuba’s precarious economy and uncertain future, which are crucial issues for young people wondering if they should get a higher degree, start a family, and so on. As one friend of mine put it: “The problem isn’t really the material issue. It’s the feeling that you don’t have a future.”
The geopolitical consciousness of the younger Cuban generation is very different from that of the generation that experienced the early years of the revolution directly. The revolutionary solidarity and “third worldism” of the 1960s, still strong among many older Cubans, is almost imperceptible among twenty- and thirtysomethings. This is due to many factors: cynicism over Cuba’s heavy dependency on the Soviet Union and the effect of its collapse; the painful legacy of the Angolan conflict, private memories of which bear no resemblance to official discourse; and the crucial importance of south Florida and, to a lesser extent, Spain, as sites of emigration in the 1990s. This is, above all, a generation shaped by the catastrophic Special Period.
Cuba’s foreign policy is increasingly based on alignment with Venezuela and support for emerging leftist governments elsewhere in Latin America. But focused on their own struggle to make ends meet, many younger Cubans are primarily concerned about what impact bilateral relations with Venezuela will have on their daily lives. For example, in 2005, when I lived in Havana for a year, I remember common expressions of anger over some local medical facilities going unstaffed because of the flood of doctors to Venezuela. It is also generally seen as offensive that Cuba should subsidize other countries’ infrastructure. One young academic told me that at his workplace a major topic of anger in a recent workers’ assembly was the news that Cuba had paid for the construction of some 20 hospitals in Bolivia. Even those young Cubans I have met who have voluntarily gone to Venezuela or elsewhere on “missions,” medical or otherwise, did so mostly for the opportunities they offered to travel, make a higher salary, and acquire goods scarce in Cuba.
Some young Cubans are wary of their country becoming dependent on Venezuela as it once was on the Soviet Union. They have little interest in or detailed knowledge of the leftward turn farther south—indeed, the Cuban media cover Latin American politics much less than one might expect, and young Cubans may be less likely to follow the state-run media. Rather than excitement about the anti-neoliberal revolution currently sweeping Latin America, they instead express an acute sense of Cuba’s political isolation and the lack of positive models to follow in the socialist and post-socialist world.
But migration occupies young Cubans more than international relations. Most of the ones I spoke to knew that if they ever leave the island, it will most likely be on a one-way trip to Florida. Indeed, the topic of emigration casts a constant shadow over Cuban youth. In 2005, I was impressed by how naturally the topic came up in conversation: “If so-and-so ever leaves the country . . . ,” my friends would say casually, much as those in the United States might mention moving to another city. And it can be surprising to hear parents refer to their children’s inevitable emigration with resignation. As one mother of three, a university professor, wearily told me: “It’s not a question of whether your children will leave the country; it’s a question of what country they’ll end up in.”
I know some young Cubans who are committed to staying. Still, even they concede that they may be forced to leave—usually, they imagine, for economic reasons. One young woman, a researcher at a cultural institute, summed up the thinking of many of her friends: “Depending on what happens, I’ll either leave the country or stay and make the best of it, or maybe try to get a better job here at a mixed [i.e., joint venture] company.” Emigration to some extent can be restricted by sector. For example, it is particularly difficult for doctors and educators to get permission to leave the country. But young engineers, architects, and computer scientists seem to be leaving in droves. A 27-year-old engineer I spoke to, who had attended a boarding school for high-performing students, estimated that a third of his high school class had left the country.
Emigration is not restricted to Cubans of a particular social class, although one’s level of privilege determines one’s method of departure. Less skilled, underprivileged Cubans, driven by economic desperation, risk the dangerous crossing on makeshift rafts. Those lucky enough to have family members abroad who can save or borrow the $10,000 fee board clandestine motorboats bound for either the Floridian or, increasingly, the Mexican coast. From there, most make their way to Miami, where they often find themselves staffing the city’s low-paid service sector and inhabiting Hialeah’s working-class sprawl. Young professionals often leave primarily in search of more fulfilling career options. They may prefer to wait for a legal opportunity to leave the country, such as a scholarship to study abroad, or a work contract, real or fictitious, in Mexico or elsewhere. From there they may cross the U.S. border or simply stay in their new host country and try to attain residency.
Because of the political sensitivity of leaving the country, it is common for people to tell only their very closest friends they are planning to emigrate, and then only very close to the date of departure. It creates a depressing environment. One 25-year-old friend of mine, if he hadn’t seen someone for a while, would say gloomily, “Who knows, maybe he’s left the country.” Contemporary Cuban literature, music, and cinema are littered with melancholic references to old friends departing for el yuma (slang for the United States).
Some young Cubans express optimism that emigrating to the United States will mean political liberty and personal opportunity. And it is true that many experience a heady sensation of freedom when they leave the island. Yet others are more cautious, saying their friends in Miami describe it dismissively as “Cuba with more money,” “Cuba part two,” or, in reference to the politics of the Miami community, “the same bullshit in reverse.”
There are some young cubans who fully support the revolution. They may be few and far between, but they are there. They tend not to evince the hero worship of the leadership one often finds in the older generations. Their support is, rather, based on a true ideological commitment to social equality and an end to capitalist exploitation. In other words, they are socialists rather than fidelistas.
But most young Cubans would like change. The question is: What kind of change? Some youths believe that the best of socialism and best of capitalism can feasibly be combined. One 31-year-old woman who worked in a cultural center expressed optimism about such a path: “I think we have to conserve what’s best and improve the rest. We have to keep evolving.” She spoke hopefully about one day opening her own cultural center, with the support of the revolutionary authorities. She and other optimists tend to see the recent round of reforms and slightly more open public debate as promising signs of further openings. They hope Cuba can carve out a more inclusive, open system within socialism.
Other young people—likely the majority—are far more pessimistic about the feasibility of “reformed socialism.” “All these people who think there can be a different socialism, something more open, well, it’s a great idea, but it’s just not going to happen,” a 35-year-old journalist and translator said. “First, because the people in power won’t let it. Second, because if [reformists] ever did gain power here, they wouldn’t survive, because the U.S. government wouldn’t permit it. Because it’s precisely this system, which I think is terrible, that’s prevented the United States from entering here and doing whatever it wants with us. Because if there were a system that was more egalitarian, but at the same time weaker, this country would turn into a colony of the United States.” He mentioned the Nicaraguan revolution as the clearest example of this -dynamic—meaning that because the Sandinista government lacked Cuba’s command economy, militant mobilization, and controlled media, it was gradually undermined.
Still, everyone I spoke to expressed a preference for a slow, gradual change that would give them and others time to adapt and that, they hoped, would preserve some of Cuba’s hard-won social rights and protections. Furthermore, the desire for change is not the same as calling for the abrupt overthrow of the government and a return to capitalism. Certainly some think that a post-socialist Cuba will be characterized by first-world standards of living and a buoyant economy. But others fear an onslaught of the neoliberal reforms that devastated many Latin American economies in the 1990s, and the final collapse of every sector other than tourism. Neither do most harbor idealism about electoral politics, for they know that in Latin America procedural democracy has not led to social justice.
Most young Cubans, even those highly critical of their government, have little interest in either Cuba’s internal dissidents or the Miami organizations. Like other Cubans, they usually find out about internal dissident groups only when they are denounced by the Cuban state media. Such groups are easily discredited among the general population. For example, Cuban television recently revealed that the leader of the opposition group Damas de Blanco had received support from right-wing Florida representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and money channeled through the U.S. Interests Section. As one friend of mine, himself deeply critical of Cuba’s revolutionary government, said dismissively, “Let’s face it, those people are U.S. lackeys.” Regardless of their possible connections with the U.S. government, many opposition groups emphasize demands for the release of political prisoners, which is a low priority for most Cubans, and generally speak in a framework of liberal political rights, rather than one of sociopolitical rights, would would better address many Cubans’ disaffection.
If they are disinterested in the internal opposition, most young Cubans are even less interested in the Miami exile groups. Young Cubans rarely listen to Radio Martí, and not because they lack access to it. (Many more sporadically watch CNN en Español or Univisión using clandestine TV antennas.) What they lack is political sympathy. The Miami community’s domination by political reactionaries, its sheltering of terrorists, its paternalism and condescension toward island Cubans, and the vulgarity and violence of its verbal attacks on the revolutionary leadership alienate many Cubans. And the freedom that young Cubans long for bears only minimal resemblance to the freedom demanded so stridently by Miami’s right-wing politicians.
A friend of mine envisioned a worst-case scenario of a post-socialist gold rush in which ordinary Cubans would be left floundering without capital, relevant training, or experience with market-oriented labor discipline: “And then you have to count on the fact that a whole bunch of Cubans living outside the country are going to come back here with all those things in their favor, not to mention all the foreigners.” Young Cubans want to make sure they are the beneficiaries of any future transition, fearing that they will be displaced due to outdated technical skills, upheavals in the economy, and a return wave of émigrés with years of private-sector experience. Far from seeing young Cuban Americans as potential future political allies in some idyllic reconciliation of “the Cuban family,” many young island Cubans, explicitly or implicitly, see them as future professional competition.
Despite the general ambience of negativity and discontent one finds among most young Cubans, anyone wondering if the left has a future in Cuba might do well to listen carefully to their complaints. Most of them, I found, openly sympathize with the goals of the revolution but disagree with its method of implementation or see it as too utopian given Cuba’s current socioeconomic reality. Many respect the idealism of the 1960s as something noble but say socialism can’t work in such an underdeveloped country, with few natural resources and low population density (as compared to China), and with the U.S. hovering at the gate. In one typical conversation, a 27-year-old engineer voiced a series of complaints about the current government, swore up and down that he despised politics, then finished by saying: “But if I had to define myself, I’d say I was on the left.”
Additionally, their worldview has been formed by the socialist state in many ways, shaping their criticisms of the revolution. For example, they tend to see the world as divided into socialist and capitalist countries, rather than into democracies and dictatorships, as described by politically active exiles. Notably, not only do some young Cubans not denounce socialism per se, but they critique contemporary Cuba by insisting they are already living under state capitalism.
If they exhibit a deep insecurity about the future, they also display a certain wistfulness about the socialist past. Even people in their late twenties exhibit some nostalgia for the 1980s, that fabled golden age when people could live well on their salaries, before the social disparities and budding materialism produced by the market reforms of the 1990s arrived. They recall the Cuba of their childhood as a place of relative equality, social cohesion, and unity.
Of course, nostalgia is not exactly a politics. But such memories reveal something of a generational sensibility, and suggest that the legacy of socialism in a future Cuba will be complex. Similarly, young people I have spoken to sometimes describe “real socialists” as those who have stood up fearlessly in recent popular assemblies to denounce Cuba’s problems. They see these “socialists of the heart,” as one friend of mine described them, as self-sacrificing, the true defenders of social equality, as opposed to opportunistic state bureaucrats or the “red bourgeoisie.” Cuban youth are thus not only political, but also interested in socialism—if in ways not always recognized by their elders or the revolutionary authorities.
Michelle Chase is a doctoral candidate in the history department of New York University. She is writing a dissertation on the gender politics of the Cuban Revolution.